More sleepwalking will lead to rude awakening
If they want to lift the crowd, Ireland must show more hunger, writes Jim Glennon
The immediate future may well be all black, but the real issue for Irish rugby is that of our prospects for the 2014 Six Nations, and beyond; not surprisingly, there has been little talk all week of Rugby World Cup 2015 – off the radar now, it seems, and rightly so
Performance aside, last Saturday had something of a 'time travel' feel to it, and not a pleasant one either. For those of us of a certain age, it was a stark reminder of just how the game, and all around it, has changed.
A full house for an early-evening kick-off in perfect weather conditions against one of the powers of southern hemisphere rugby, everything was set up for a great occasion; the perception that Australia's recent form had been somewhat patchy added significantly to the sense of anticipation.
Regular readers won't be surprised at my questioning of the basis for that ultimately unfounded optimism. Surely it couldn't have been as a result of the previous week's outing against a weakened and underperforming Samoa side or, indeed, our travails in last season's Six Nations?
Further, had we forgotten already the difficulties our visitors posed to the 2013 Lions or, more relevantly, to Italy and England over the previous fortnight? At the risk of inviting boredom, I repeat a long-held view – that an inordinate proportion of the Irish sports public has an entirely false, myopic, and overstated sense of our place in the global game. Mid-table in the Six Nations, with the occasional win over England or France, and a very occasional autumn win against one of the big three southerners, is about the extent of our capacity – reflected by a world ranking of somewhere between sixth and tenth. Our team of the 2007-2009 period, as with their predecessors of 1948-1949, was a once-in-a-lifetime event and deserves celebration as such. We'll be waiting a long time for their achievements to be emulated.
There can be no argument that Australia were easily the better team last week, but it was the extent of the gulf between the sides that left us all so downbeat. Talk of 'fine margins' in the aftermath were unrealistic in the extreme. Differences in skill levels can on occasion be offset by rugby's fundamental contest of man-to-man physicality and, traditionally, higher levels of intensity in this area have served us well. Not so last week however; indeed, one of the quotes of the weekend was Ronan O'Gara's assertion that Ireland had lost 'the battle of the body-language'. We were beaten physically in most positions, none more tellingly than at tighthead prop – probably the most important personal contest of the lot.
It's not only the players who are culpable though, nor does it end with Joe Schmidt and his management colleagues. An essential component of that vital intensity is the relationship and interaction between team and crowd, a huge feature of the 'old' Lansdowne Road but sadly conspicuous by its absence from the new stadium.
One of the downsides of the vastly-increased availability, live and televised, of top-quality rugby has been the necessity to win over to the game a new audience for the new stadium – the traditional attendance, twice or thrice yearly, by club members from all over the country, is sadly a thing of the past, and the arena now needs filling for internationals five or six times annually.
The IRFU, in fairness, are to be congratulated for having succeeded in doing so, having come to terms with some early pricing issues. I'd suggest, however, that some of the methodology employed in-stadium may well be counter-productive in the context of crowd-participation in support of the team: a quasi-DJ commandeering the public address system, blaring music pre-match and during the team announcements, the irritating 'pulse' during TMO consultations, the constant drum-beat, even the public prompting of The Fields of Athenry (both during break periods and even, inexcusably, during play).
All this is not what rugby in Ireland, and particularly supporting the Ireland team, is, or ever was, about. In fact, it runs directly counter to the organic development of any intimidating atmosphere.
A lifetime of involvement in the game at all levels and in numerous roles tells me that choreographed 'fun' and Irish rugby supporters is a marriage made a long, long, way from heaven. And I'm not the only one who believes that the incessant blaring of music actually serves to disengage the crowd and to inhibit the generation of an atmosphere. Some will go so far as to describe the
sanitised and manufactured 'atmosphere' as cringeworthy and even embarrassing.
Rant over, and back to my original issue of where exactly do we stand and what are realistic expectations for our national team? Irish rugby people are generally knowledgeable and realistic. We'll hopefully continue to produce that once-in-a-generation team of players but, ultimately, we'd be delighted to be in contention annually for Six Nations titles, beating the odd SANZAR side at home in November, and competing realistically with them away in June.
As for today, we must play to our strengths, and mitigate those of the opposition. The word 'hunger' is often used, and at times abused, in punditry; today, however, we must be avaricious. We must get in opposition faces, and stay there; we must ensure their constant discomfort, especially when they have the ball. When we have possession, we must carry hard and as often as possible, and, above all, get the crowd behind the team spontaneously and organically.
It'll be a tough day, undoubtedly and, in 99 per cent certainty, an unsuccessful one. This team is a lot better than last week's performance however and they will have been hurting, and hurting badly, for the last eight days. Whether we'll see their true quality today, or will have to wait until some point during the Six Nations, remains to be seen.
We sleepwalked through Samoa, and had a nightmare against Australia; hopefully today won't bring too rude an awakening.